Dvorak: Wikipedia Just Gets Better, Despite All Odds

I was right about Wikipedia. And I was wrong.

Some years back, when the "wiki" model first emerged as a method of developing and distributing diverse information among Internet users for collaboration, I immediately looked for its flaws.

I did this because the concept was utopian. I thought, let me get this straight: People are going to contribute to an open, online encyclopedia — just because they can?

In fact, that is exactly what happened, and Wikipedia quickly achieved critical mass.

When I initially evaluated it, I thought the wiki concept would rapidly devolve into a mess. I was convinced that online vandalism would eventually invade and ruin it.

Yet the complete opposite has occurred. Why?

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Wikipedia is plagued with online vandalism and people with agendas or grudges. It is well known that certain companies and organizations dog their own articles to keep criticism at bay.

RSS feeds make it simple for users to keep track of changes and instantly suppress unwelcome information. Though volunteers' vigilance has minimized blatant puffery planted by companies, the constant tug between opposing views has turned many Wikipedia entries into very bland posts.

Bland posts tend to be factual, but they're devoid of dimension. Highly critical posts about sketchy corporate practices are not well represented in Wikipedia (although they do exist where the targeted company isn't paying attention). The smart companies are all over it.

A lot of critics think the whole wiki idea is stupid. I am not one of them.

As I said, I admit to some skepticism at first, but my own use of Wikipedia for background research has changed that.

Recently, I was on a podcast with a reporter who taught a journalism school class. He put forth two odd edicts: "Never use Wikipedia," and "Never use Google as a spell-checker."

I do both. I cannot understand why you would not use Google as a spell-checker, since the misspelled word usually shows up in the hit list with variations you can then check on Webster's. And Wikipedia can bring a writer up to speed on any topic more quickly than any other research method.

What the reporter might have been suggesting is the risk of using Wikipedia as a source from which to quote or excerpt detailed information. Wikipedia does contain many niggling errors, and you need to confirm all details with other sources — not, one would hope, with a site that uses Wikipedia for its database.

Wikipedia keeps getting higher and higher scores for accuracy. The English version, for example, is often compared with commercial encyclopedias — and is often more accurate.

Recently, I received a press release about the German version of Wikipedia saying this:

"The German-language version of Wikipedia is better than Brockhaus, Germany's commercial encyclopedia, according to an analysis commissioned by Stern magazine. The popular German publication hired WIND research institute to compare 50 articles from Wikipedia and the Brockhaus online encyclopedia based on their 15-volume edition.

"On a scale where 1 is the best and 6 is the worst, Wikipedia's average rating was 1.7, while Brockhaus's average rating was 2.7. The study assessed articles based on accuracy, completeness, up-to-date information, and ease of reading.

"In 43 out of the 50 articles, Wikipedia was judged the winner. Currently, the German-language version of Wikipedia is the second biggest, after English, with 673,000 [articles]."

Granted that studying 50 articles out of 673,000 is a crapshoot, these results are still interesting. And I do not see any of the encyclopedia publishers doing such a hot job of proving any of these overall assertions wrong.

So what's the fly in the ointment? You don't think I'm here as a Wikipedia booster without some deeper commentary, do you?

There has to be something wrong with this picture, since the idea is utopian, and utopian ideas are bound to fail in the long term.

That is the key phrase here: long term. Vandalism can be pushed back only by a community that is diligent and active.

Remember, Wikipedia's writers are all volunteers. Volunteer work such as this goes in cycles. People lose interest over time.

We are at a moment in Internet history where a lot of idealism exists. But for how long? Forever?

Could Wikipedia collapse under its own weight? Are we at the peak of some golden age of information access that we'll never see again?

I wonder about this as I see public-interest initiatives and public databases disappear and commercial sites emerge.

What happens if you have to pay for Wikipedia? Where do the volunteers go? How delicate is this mechanism in the long run?

My advice: Enjoy it while you can.

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